14: Attachment: Attention

Note: This is the next part of a book!

SECTION 3: ATTACHMENT

“Attachment is the foundation for mental health.” – Dr. Karyn Purvis


Ch. 14: ATTENTION

The human brain largely formed through a concept we now know as attachment.

What is the Something Bigger that you and I are attached to? 

That is the Human Question. 

And attention is our individual human answer.  Attention is where all the power of our 75 trillion cells is pointed.  It is a constant stream of consciousness always flowing towards something that receives it. 

You might say that all of the energy we consume becomes pointed towards whatever we give our attention to. 

The 11,000 watts you are burning right now are currently being burned so that you can sit in a temperate climate and read this book.  This book is the direction or flow of the entire you right now. If you were watching a cat video, the earth would be sacrificing those watts so you could bond with that cat.  But you’re not bonding with a cat video, obviously; the earth is paying for you to bond with this book.

In a few minutes or seconds, it will shift and you will focus your attention elsewhere, like your screaming kid or a work call. So attention is a meandering stream, always changing directions.

We can’t stop the flow. Trying to stop yourself from giving your attention to things is like trying to dam a stream with your hands or plug a water hose with your thumb.

Consciousness – attention – is the pinnacle of an individual’s existence and a magic gateway to higher levels.

What we give our attention to is, for that brief moment, our “why.” It is our purpose, albeit for a second. 

This girl is giving her attention to making an arrowhead.  Right now, all of her muscles, neurons, and tissues are working together in beautiful synchrony for one goal: 

a pointed rock. 

In one sense, she made it.  But in another, the universe did.  For the moment, she aligns all of her sunlight and earth toward this end.

This guy is giving his attention to flipping M&M’s in the air and catching them with his mouth to impress the ladies. 

Mother Earth’s 11,000 watts are paying for that, hoping for a return on the investment. It is also our investment of time and energy.  We give attention.  We pay attention.   

Then, something magical happens.  Our brains grow an emotional bond to its investments.  

Attachment

We grow hope for something in return.  Care grows.  It’s why you care about the stocks you own more than the ones you don’t.  You clean the house you live in, not your neighbor’s.  You invest in that which… you have already invested in.  It is a cycle of loyalty.

And, thanks to evolutionary hacks, these brains don’t really care whether the investment of attention is in something concrete or abstract, living or non-living.

And here we are, 8 billion ants scurrying around, each constantly investing this steady stream of energy.  It’s sort of like our power mountain is a volcano, and attention is high energy lava spewing out our eyeballs, except this lava is a stream of gold. 

She likes it.

Attention isn’t just the most powerful thing we have.   It is the culmination of everything we have in the present.

That which has our attention has our body and all its energy and power captive

That power is quite the prize.   Win Warren Buffett’s attention for a moment, and you now have a brief shot at accessing all that power he is sitting on. 

I know– Buffett looks more like Kim Jong Un with grey hair, but I didn’t want to redraw him, K? And yes, he has way more money.

Whatever has your attention has a shot at getting some of your bank accounts, your work, your skill, your knowledge, and your loyalty.   

Interestingly, this golden stream is extremely narrow.  For all the giant reservoir of data stored up here in our head’s hard drive, the stream flowing out is pitiful in comparison.  We have billions of bytes of stored data in our memory, but our perceptual bandwidth of conscious attention is only a few bits.[1] That’s all we can focus on at a time.

And this tiny stream is guarded by a bouncer:  our conscious will or volition.  This bouncer is the boss, the head executive of a large corporation.  Unfortunately, the bouncer is not a particularly good one.[2]

If anything wants our attention, it needs to convince the bouncer.  Sweet talk this guy, and he is a sucker, always diverting the stream of our attention elsewhere like a Black Friday shopper looking for good deals.  His job is monumentally important: pay attention to the correct things, and our reservoir will continue to fill.  We will grow and become more powerful. 

Spend too much time paying attention to the wrong things, and we will be drained.  Others will siphon our power away, cashing in on our lack of discipline.

That is why there is such an epic battle going on for your attention, both inside and out.

THE CORPORATION

Internally, your body is fighting for the gold.  Our nervous system is its own competitive hierarchy – a corporation – full of dutiful workers constantly seeking attention for their needs.

Assuming your name is also Larry, we’ll call you Larry, Inc.  Your body has lots of internal divisions.

This is the executive boardroom (which conveniently meets in your body’s top floor office):

Ladies and gents, the most complex organ ever created.

From the best we can tell,[3] your nervous system division reps (nerves) meet here all day with the executive team to tackle important company topics like dry skin, invading infections, bowel movements, wanting a college degree, and really liking sex. 

Here – in the brain – the big decisions are made, and the body’s attention budget is allocated.  Most smaller needs are taken care of within their own lower department.  We call these departments our subconscious

But the toughest problems, or those the lower body can’t fix alone, get their moment with the executive team: the conscious mind.

The Frontal Lobe. Execs meet here.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and you, Larry, have a mild itch on your southern abdomen.  Let’s have a peek at the neurons meeting inside your Lobe:

Ultimately, the issues are filtered by the team. For each, they ignore it, table it, or take immediate action.  They rank priorities, also a bit like March Madness, with thousands of whiny contestants all the time:

The male dilemma.  Same finalists every time.

Here, the minor inflammation in the hips isn’t quite enough to present as conscious pain, so you, Larry, are never aware.  Neither does the infection issue, because the white blood cell team is so badass they almost always get the job done.  You thoughtlessly staved off an ephemeral urge to read a book for now.  So…hungry and horny battle it out yet again.

It is a very, very high stakes contest to capture the momentary abundance of the entire company by convincing the bouncer- the CEO – to take action.  The winner gets access to all the “voluntary” muscles of the body, the mind, and all the excess power under your control. 

The Lobe directs the whole body to go buy a cheeseburger, instead of making babies. 

But the attention battle is never over.

Say you fall and break a leg on the way to get your burger. 

The dynamic Lobe reacts and reprioritizes a broken leg over a cheeseburger.  It directs your hands to dial an ambulance, while your hypothalamus tells your stomach to shut his ass up and wait.  It taps all the resources under its power: voluntary muscles, networks of friends, 9-1-1 helpers, money, and transportation.

The same fingers that can type 911 could also be forking over $50 to someone on Venmo, or filling out paperwork for a mortgage, or typing out a Classic novel.  But in this moment, they’ve made their choice.  Larry needs help.  His leg is screaming and impossible to ignore.  And he is pouring out his assets to get attention.

We call this SPENDING.

If all we ever do is gratify our internal attention desires, our power does this:

Spent.

So we must give away attention as well.

The river goes both ways, and the CEO/bouncer/consciousness – must constantly delegate access to not only internal forces, but external ones as well. 

They want the gold, too.   And they are quite loud.  And they are smart.  Mesmerize the bouncer, and you have opened the gate to Larry’s assets.

It should be no shock that the battle for attention is humanity’s last battleground.   The fight to capture attention is fierce, with giant multinational corporations at war over our 75 trillion cells and their resources. We call it the attention economy, and the prize of the attention economy is the human and everything the human controls, even if for a second.

This is the March Madness, external conference. 

All for control of a few bits of information for a few seconds at a time.

The truth is, the tiny stream of attention is in constant flow directing deals, transactions, and tradeoffs.   Every day, we wake up and spend the entire day giving our attention in exchange for something.  We trade it to feel something, or to acquire something in order to feel something later. 

We give our attention to a cat video to feel amused.  We give our attention to a Rom-Com to feel warm fuzzies. 

Or, we think longer term.  We might give our attention to a calculus professor –

to gain more intellectual power –

to exchange that for a job –

to exchange that for a paycheck –

to exchange that for a nice house –

to exchange that for —

well, others’ attention.

Leverage.

You’ve gotta give money to make money, and the same is true with attention.  Long term thinkers who routinely give their attention to friends and calculus probably stand to be more powerful than people who give all their attention to cat videos. Not only would they become more powerful, but they would become more mentally healthy.

That’s because we were born with a wonderful, unchangeable neural circuitry that lives in its sweet spot when we give our attention to– and attach to–humans.  We were wired each this way from birth, at a level deeper than we can control.  It is how we came to rule the world, how we created such a mess, and strangely enough, the only way out of the mess.


[1] Brains are impossibly efficient.  The actual amount you process is widely debated, anywhere from 16 bits to 20,000 bits. But we almost universally agree on this point:  Conscious perception is a tiny fraction of the total information you can access. Can  you think of every single memory you’ve ever had – all at once?  In fact, your visual perception even sucks worse than you think.  Try out this neat trick with the playing card:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4898652/  Also, the bandwith of consciousness discussion, decent middle of the road explanation:  https://sites.psu.edu/psych256sp14/2014/03/09/the-bandwidth-of-consciousness/

[2] I mean, I should really give him/her some credit.  Brain pruning (discussed later) is pretty incredible.

[3] Pretty good explanation here: https://www.medicaldaily.com/human-brain-consciousness-episodic-memory-personal-narrative-social-structure-384757

[4] Okay, okay, it doesn’t.  Mine is worse.

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